November 15, 2019 | Feature
this is weird
college (preparation) as a cultural institution
In the morning, maybe ten minutes before my alarm goes off, I float about halfway to consciousness. With my eyes still closed and dreams starting to fade, I become aware that I’m lying in bed, under a blanket. I think it’s my bed at home, in Greenville, North Carolina—the wooden frame my parents got at a yard sale, the memory foam mattress topper. Window on my left, book-laden nightstand on my right. And if I let my arm drop down, I can touch carpet. And if I stumble downstairs, I’ll see my parents in the kitchen, about to leave for work, and if I reach out to them…
But my arm dangles in the space between my slightly lofted bed and the tile floor of my room in EmWool. Trucks are beeping somewhere outside my window. I roll over, and my forehead bumps an outlet on the cinderblock wall. I wake fully; everything feels strange and hard.
It’s weird, college—especially this kind of college, where most students attend right after graduating high school and often aren’t from the area. So many of us are suddenly living, eating, and studying hundreds of miles from home, all in the name of undergoing intensive social and intellectual development (friends, revelations, employability!) that will prepare us for our first venture into the Real World.
It seems like a justifiable, even pragmatic idea. A 2017 study from Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School reported that employers treat a bachelor’s degree as “a proxy for a candidate’s range and depth of skills” and “appear to be closing off their access to the two-thirds of the U.S. workforce that does not have a four-year college degree.” An oft-cited 2015 study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that the average difference between the lifetime wages of individual college and high school graduates towers at $1 million.
Many of these benefits are due in large part to the generational wealth and social capital that a disproportionate number of college graduates have to begin with, but that’s a nuance often lost in discourse that positions “college readiness” as one of the prime goals of a K-12 education. It makes preparation for college seem inseparable from preparation for life; living “successfully” seems to require a successful stint in college.
One prime example of this mindset is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan law signed by President Obama in 2015. Its webpage on the Department of Education website lauds recent American educational progress: “For example, today, high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. Dropout rates are at historic lows. And more students are going to college than ever before.” In another document, the ESSA is introduced as enshrining “policies that will help prepare all students for success in college and future careers.”
This close association between college and life success is reflected in an article by high school counselor Hilmi Isikli. He writes that “[t]rue college readiness” relies on “weaving academics with character, personal interests and mental health… [W]e’re setting students up for success in college, and most importantly, empowering them to lead fulfilled, purposeful lives.” Although Isikli ultimately does employ a holistic view of educational goals, this is all still framed within a discussion of college—a key part of Isikli’s vision of a fulfilled, purposeful life.
Sure, there’s the classic figure of the intrepid entrepreneur who drops out of college and becomes fabulously successful. But there’s a prevalent sense that such people are exceptions, not the rule, and you’re better off going to college to at least move toward something stable. Even famed college dropout Bill Gates thinks so, writing that “getting a degree is a much surer path to success” and that college helps students “learn how to interact with other people and work as part of a team. Critical skills nearly all employers look for in new hires.”
This acceptance of college as generally the best step after high school for any successful person is echoed in many corners of the Internet.
Last week, consulting executive Jennifer Folsom wrote about her two high school senior sons’ struggle with college readiness: “I know there are many options aside from college (a gap year, no college, trade school, community college and more).” Folsom may be conscious of the multitude of post-high school possibilities besides college, but as her article continues she struggles to accept them, demonstrating the prevailing strength of a high-school-to-college-to-life narrative—which goes uncriticized and reinforced by the “experts” she interviews.
There’s Katherine Stievater, the founder of Gap Year Solutions, who “provides consulting services to help students successfully transition to college.” Stievater tells Folsom, “You want to focus on getting your students from high school to college to adulthood successfully.”
There’s also Kim Gallagher, the founder of Blue Book Essays, a college admissions coaching company whose Instagram features such quips as “ADULTING / Starting your college essay is the first step. After putting your dishes in the dishwasher.” In her interview with Folsom, Gallagher says, “I can gauge a student’s college-readiness almost immediately by how long it takes for him or her to send me their first draft…It’s about executive functioning.” Here, again, Gallagher equates readiness for life (“executive functioning”) with readiness for college.
There’s more: Folsom also cites the nine signs of college readiness from Grown and Flown, an online space for parents of high schoolers and college students to share advice and insights. The list asks, “How can parents distinguish between the normal stumbles and troubles of a teen and the deeper problems that may preclude success in college?” It answers with nine indicators of readiness that include coping with “the ‘hard’ feelings in life,” self-care, time management, and an overall will to take advantage of college, defined as a “gift like none other.”
These sources all seem to hint that such an approach to college is largely confined to the wealthy; after all, Folsom is a consulting executive, Gap Year Solutions’s initial hour-long consultation alone costs $150, and Grown and Flown seems to be frequented almost entirely by mothers with great amounts of time and resources to use on their children. But let’s remember that college readiness is one of the main metrics in much broader discussions of K-12 education, as evidenced in the framing of ESSA and so much other work.
And then there are the movies: High School Musical, Lady Bird, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Superbad, Booksmart, Candy Jar, The Kissing Booth, A Cinderella Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie (just look to American Pie 2), Blockers, Clueless, The Princess Diaries… College may not always drive these plots, but the sense that it’s what should come next is a given in each of these coming-of-age stories.
So how did we get here? What does it mean that a college education has come to be framed as this first step of Real Adult Life? Why have I woken up every morning since September 1 in a bed 600 miles from the place I grew up? Why will I spend the majority of the next four years of my life on a hill in Rhode Island?
At this point, I feel like it’s necessary to note that I’m not going home for Thanksgiving break, leading me to feel a little more disoriented about this—home, college, what it all means—than usual.
So let’s dive in.
Specifically, let’s dive into this 2011 book written by John Thelin, a Brown alumnus and professor at the University of Kentucky, called A History of American Higher Education. It was available in the Rock, and I was tired of dealing with sketchy history websites about the development of universities, so here we are.
Thelin describes the “Oxford-Cambridge ideal” that the earliest U.S. colleges of the colonial era largely attempted to imitate. Harvard College wrote of their early days in a 1963 brochure for prospective students, “Students lived together in the college building in constant contact with their teachers. They worked and played together, creating the very special kind of community which has been characteristic of the American residential college ever since. American colleges, following Harvard’s early example, have adopted the Cambridge-Oxford pattern…”
Thelin also cites George Pierson, a former professor at Yale University, who wrote in his 1976 book Yale: A Short History of the ideals upon which Yale was founded: “That is, young men should eat, sleep, study, play, and worship together, make friends, compete against each other and learn to stand on their own two feet, in loyalty always to the larger community. As at Oxford and Cambridge, books were to be but part of the education.”
But, Thelin argues, the Oxford-Cambridge ideal was not all-encompassing. The College of William and Mary, for instance, did not stipulate such a concentrated community in their early days. Their 1727 statutes declared of their students’ parents and guardians: “If any have their houses so near the college, that from thence the college bells can be heard and the public hours of study be duly observed, we would not by these statutes hinder them from boarding their own children, or their friends, or from lodging them at their own houses.”
The admissions requirements for these early colleges usually included knowledge of “specific classical languages, ancient authors, and levels of mathematics.” However, most colleges also utilized verbal examinations to admit students and often departed from their stated admissions standards in doing so. Some colleges even allowed students to matriculate without applying!
The environment of early colonial colleges centered around oratorical skill; “students faced a mix of classroom recitations and oral disputations in which they were subject to immediate critical evaluation by both masters and fellow undergraduates.”
Thelin also writes, “One peculiar characteristic of the colonial colleges in their first decades is that there was little emphasis on completing degrees. Many students…left college after a year or two, apparently with none of the stigma we now associate with dropouts.”
So that’s a sliver of the history behind today’s college-centered societal moment. As a nineteen-year-old first-year at Brown University from North Carolina, what do I think of all this?
I think college is weird, but I don’t think it’s inherently bad. Which is nice, since I’m currently, you know, a college student. I think there is something to this willful gathering of mostly young people from near and far, here to learn from and with each other. And I think it is also crucial to recognize how malleable and imperfect higher education institutions are, how much more work remains to make college more accessible and enriching.
Yes, college can be weird and wonderful, but so are so many other things that can follow high school. And we—individuals, employers, friends, siblings, parents—need to remember that.
I’m awake in my room in EmWool and things feel strange and hard, but I get up. I think I’ll call my parents later. I pull the chain on the curtain of my window, and breathe in the sunlight.